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Tea Party groups expect influence in elections for Michigan's public university governing boards

A New Tea(m) on the Field
October 21, 2011

In most states the road to a seat on a public university’s governing board would begin with an application to the governor’s office or a phone call from a lawmaker.

In Michigan, it could start for some at the Big Sky Diner in the city of Ypsilanti, where the Willow Run Tea Party Caucus holds its weekly meeting.

Two weeks ago, the caucus heard from three Republicans interested in seeking one of two seats on the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents that will be up for election in November 2012.

Unlike most states, where governing board members are appointed by governors or legislators, Michigan chooses members of the governing boards of its three largest universities -- the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University -- in statewide elections. Terms on the eight-member boards are staggered, so two seats on each become open every two years.

Because candidates are nominated at party conventions, where small, local groups like the Willow Run caucus can wield surprising influence, and because the governing board seats -- as low-profile statewide races -- tend to be determined by top-of-the-ticket races such as those for president and governor, groups like the Willow Run caucus could end up having a large say in who sits on the boards.

“There are a huge number of new energetic independents participating in the nominating process nowadays, some of whom are not that experienced in politics,” said Rob Steele, a former faculty member at the University of Michigan medical school who is seeking the Republican nomination for the Board of Regents. “There’s no question that this new group has a huge say in the party convention.”

What that means for the board and the universities, however, is an open question. Tea Party groups have not had a large presence on or interest in higher education governing boards, though there have been a few cases of members seeking seats on community college boards in local elections. The caucus says it could bring a more critical eye to issues of university administration that have been overlooked by previous board members and a stronger connection to the “average guy” instead of state politicians. Opponents have argued that the groups' anti-establishment, anti-government positions will lead it to support candidates that might be considered unqualified.

Only three other public university boards in the United States are elected: the Nevada Board of Regents, the University of Colorado Board of Regents, and the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. The Alabama State Board of Education, which oversees K-12 education and the state’s community colleges, is also elected.

But unlike Michigan, candidates in those states run in district races rather than statewide, making party identification less of an issue. Because campaigning statewide is expensive, governing board elections tend to track closely with whichever party wins other statewide races.

That could aid  “Tea Party” candidates, whose views might be more conservative than the general public, if they are nominated at the state convention. “Because it’s a general partisan election, these candidates likely don’t face the same problems that tea party candidates face in other races, where they end up not doing well in general election because they’ve taken extreme positions,” said Matt Grossman, a political science professor at Michigan State University. “Most people do not know much about them.”

In 2010, when Republicans won the governor’s office and all other statewide races, Republicans won all six seats, two on each of the three governing boards. Three candidates defended seats they already held, while the other three were taken by newcomers.

Tea Party groups were able to gain a foothold in the nominating convention in 2010 by filling delegate seats, many in more liberal areas that had gone unfilled. Individually, groups like the Willow Run caucus are not that influential. In 2010, the caucus held 41 of about 2,000 delegate seats at the nominating convention. Dennis Moore, chairman of the Willow Run caucus, said the real strength comes from informal networks with other Tea Party groups across the state. Because they tend to agree on a lot of issues, he said, one group can typically get many others to vote for a preferred candidate, especially in a low-profile race such as a governing board seat.

The Tea Party groups did not wield their influence in 2010 when it came to nominating governing board members, Moore said. The nominated candidates, including the newcomers, did not have strong ties to Tea Party groups. Tea Party groups backed some first-time candidates, such as Brian Breslin, who ended up winning a seat on the Michigan State Board of Trustees, but their main focus was on supporting candidates who were focused on limited constitutional government in general, and not any specific issues.

Because four of the six seats were already held by Republicans in 2010, the party did not make big gains on any individual board. In 2012, however, five of the six board members who would be up for re-election if they seek to retain their seats would be Democrats. If Republicans take both seats on each board, they will even out the political distribution.

Rich Novak, senior vice president for programs and research at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said it is less important where a candidate comes from or how he or she is elected than how he or she governs when actually placed on the board.

“Problems come about when someone seeks the seat because they have a cause, a grudge, or some specific issue or agenda they want to bring into the boardroom,” he said. “But that happens with appointed boards as well as elected.”

Conflicts have arisen on both appointed and elected boards. In Texas, the governor is responsible for appointing all members of the state's six higher-education governing boards. During his 11 years in office Gov. Rick Perry has appointed all the members of each board. Several clashes have sprung up between board members and faculty members and administrators, who argue that the board is overstepping its responsibility.

Novak said the Association of Governing Boards advocates that board members should be appointed rather than elected. The association also advocates for such appointees should go through a neutral or bipartisan merit screening committee. Novak said this would guarantee that candidates are familiar with the issues they’ll be dealing with and qualified to address them, while still giving politicians ultimate authority in the process.

Moore said his group has realized it is in a position to influence the governing board nominations, and hearing out the candidates was the first step in determining how they will do so. “We’ve got this thing called relevance, but what are we going to do with it?” he said.

This time around the group has a very narrow agenda. Moore said the group will support constitutional conservatives for all boards, but its focus will be the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents. One of the caucus’s members, William Kauffman, a former aerospace professor at the university who is one of the men seeking the Republican nomination to the board, has argued for several years that the university is giving military secrets to China. “We want to get this issue out there,” Moore said. “I can’t prove that it’s true, but I can’t deny it either.”

A spokesman for the university said Kauffman has brought up this issue several times in the past without supporting evidence. He said the allegations are not true and that the university does not work on classified projects.

He also said small groups like the Willow Run Tea Party caucus overstate their ability to influence selection of a single candidate focused on a single issue. But given the influence of Tea Party groups across the state in the 2010 election, their presence in Michigan politics should not be overlooked.

Dan Burns, a mathematics professor and president of the University of Michigan’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said faculty members at the state’s public universities are concerned about recent attempts by politicians to influence the academic process. He said a board that ascribes to the same political philosophies as the governor, who received strong backing from Tea Party groups, might be a burden on the faculty.

Moore said the important thing is to elect people to the board who will at least look into the issue, which he said the current board members have not done. “We’re interested in people who will lend an ear to these things we have priority-wise,” he said. Moore said he thinks the group will push for Steele and Kauffman to get the party’s nomination.

Steele said he doesn’t strictly identify himself as a “Tea Party candidate,” but he said he understands the influence the group has in the nominating convention. The major issue he’s campaigning on is getting more Michigan high school students into the university and staying in Michigan. He also wants someone on the board with a background in science, since about half the university’s budget comes from the health care system and federal grants.

Whether Steele, Kauffman, or any of Willow Run’s preferred candidates get named to the board will be determined over the next year. They will probably face stiff competition for the party’s nomination, including former Regent Dan Horning, who sat on the board from 1995-2002, who also spoke at the caucus’s meeting. Michigan politicos say Ronald Weiser, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, has also expressed interest in seeking one of the seats on the University of Michigan’s board.

While Horning and Weiser might have more conventional résumés for governing board members, that might not be a good thing. Steele said that in the past, parties have tended to nominate party stalwarts like Weiser who had been involved in government for a while.  But most Tea Party groups want something different, he said. “One thing the new people bring is a change to the notion that these positions are automatic reward for political service,” he said.

At the 2010 Republican nominating convention, Donald Nugent, CEO of Graceland Fruit Inc. who had served on the Michigan State University board since 1995 and chaired the board, did not receive the party’s nomination to seek re-election to his seat.

Based on previous elections, Michigan’s top-of-the-ticket races could be competitive. While the state voted 58-40 percent for Republican Rick Snyder in the 2010 gubernatorial race, President Obama’s presence at the top of the ticket in 2012 means things may well shake out differently. In 2008 he won the state by a similar margin as Snyder. The latest polls have Obama leading Republican challengers -- by 11 points over Mitt Romney, and 21 points against both Herman Cain and Rick Perry.

 

 

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